Thursday, May 23, 2013

Something can happen on a trip of this scope. It's a disappointing reality, though should be expected, and I'd warn people plotting a similar trek to consider it in advance: Parts may fall short, may fail altogether. Entire legs of the trip may not live up to a years-long expectation. You might lose a week to bad weather or a month to illness. Just as in regular, ordinary life, shit happens.

And this trip has definitely become real life for us, and aspects have certainly fallen into that category. Just as we've come to expect that real life does not always go as-planned, there, too, will be hiccups as we take this trip around the world.

And our last stop, in large part, was a hiccup. I don't think we did it quite right, or maybe it's just not as great as we had hoped. Thailand is one of those places in the world that people fall in love with. They speak of the kindness of strangers and the beaches and the culture in that dreamy way, their head shaking side-to-side as if ruminating on an old love affair. Our experience fell somewhere below that bleary-eyed infatuation.

After a few days in Singapore, we hoped to start our Thailand adventure on its well-known beaches in Phuket. This may have been our first mistake. Instead of finding white sand and a decent cocktail, we found 20-something partypeople, shitty beer, and the surprise of Motorcycle Week in Patong. It was a nightmare. Hogs blasting by at all hours of the day and night, aggressive massage "therapists" lining the streets, and some truly terrible food. We landed in the Jersey Shore of Thailand, much to our disappointment.

We quickly moved further south, around the Phuket peninsula, getting further and further from this horror. As we did, things got quieter and more palatable. We quite enjoyed the sleepy town of Rawai Beach, its oceanside restaurants charming and the popular (yet not overrun) Nai Harn Beach was fun with giant waves and friendly faces.

Thailand would continue its positive turn as we hopped a ferry and headed toward Koh Phi Phi, a beautiful island in the middle of the Andaman Sea. It was hard-hit by the 2005 tsunami, and has worked hard to rebuild. There's a softness to the people who live and work here, their smiles more genuine than in previous stops. We slept in a hut near the beach, forgoing air conditioning in the interest of budget, and even shared a bathroom. We swam in near-empty waters and ate our bodyweight in green curry. It finally felt like we were somewhere. And things would continue this way as we traveled on to Railay Beach, a geologically-amazing coastal town in the Krabi Province and our final beach-destination, Koh Samui, known for its ultra-charming airport.

But we'd really fall in love with this country when we left its coastline behind and hit Bangkok. To our surprise, this grimy South East Asian hub would quickly charm us. In an upcoming entry I'll tell you how I got involved in the Thai sex trade.

A selection of images from the better legs of our Thailand trip;  Rawai Beach, Koh Phi Phi, and Railay Beach.


1) Wifi passwords in restaurants and at hotels often have something to do with Bob Marley or James Bond. "007" is frequent. If you're going to be in Thailand for a month or more, consider buying into the universal wifi (think Boingo) offered in most public places. True Wifi came up in every place we visited and might be worth looking into before an extended trip in the region.

2) There are 7-11 stores on every corner. Literally. One intersection had three 7-11 stores. They smell exactly like they do at home: Hot dogs and floor cleaner. 

3) Much like other tropical places, children are awake until at least midnight, sometimes even selling sunglasses or other junk along busy streets. Because it's so hot during the day, even older kids sleep through much of the afternoon, then stay up into the night. It's disconcerting at first but makes sense.

4) Mopeds and motorbikes are readily available, as they were in Bali. Expect to pay a bit more per day to rent. About $5 a day, and cheaper if you rent it for longer periods. Tuktuks and taxis are also very cost-effective. 

5) Thailand's obsession with their King makes a gay man's adoration of Lady Di look lacklustre at-best. His portrait hangs in every single home and business in the country and he is on every denomination of money.

6) Soft Rock covers of the Western world's biggest hits play all day, everywhere. Lady Gaga bangers crooned sheepishly or Katy Perry's greatest hits, slowed waaaay down. It's entertaining and impossible to get out of your head.

7) Restaurant service is very bizarre in this part of the world. They don't seem to put much value in the ceremony of the meal, even locals seem to eat on the go or often alone, perching with a tray of food wherever they might be when mealtime hits. Food ordered in restaurants rarely arrives at the table simultaneously, so we'd often watch the other person eat before getting our own plate. We found the same to be true in Bali. You get used to it.

LOCATION: Siem Reap, Siam Reap Province, Cambodia
DATE AND TIME: Friday, May 23, 2013 9:00AM Cambodian Standard Time/Thursday, May 22, 2013 10:00PM EST


Location: Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Accommodation: The Album Hotel 
Patong Beach was one of the worst places I've ever been in my life. And I've been to Orlando. Touristy in the worst way (spring break-y horrible) and it happened to also be Motorcycle Week. I can't even tell you. Just loud, awful motorcycles blasting through town all day and night. The hotel itself was quite nice and well-run, with good-sized rooms. It is small and "boutique" with a great lobby space and an intimate feel. I'd recommend it if I recommended you go anywhere near Patong, which I do not.
Food: Nothing of note.
Tips: Just don't go here under any circumstances.

Location: Karon Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Accommodation: The Tropical Serene Resort 
A considerable step in the right direction, though the hotel itself was a bit janky and stale. Until we escaped Phuket Province altogether, each move was a reaction to the last, a slow effort in quietly getting out of there. We were able to get some peace and quiet, enjoy the pool, and recover from the first few days in Thailand. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. 
Food: Just to the east of our hotel there were a strip of very cheap, very tasty restaurants that were off the beaten path. If you head toward the ocean, restaurants are much more expensive and less charming.

Location: Rawai Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Accommodation: Phuket Sea Resort 
This hotel was quite nice and very quiet. Two great pools and a good breakfast. The rooms were large, the wifi was fast, and the service was friendly. 
Food: The restaurants at Nai Harn Beach were all similar and tasty for a quick lunch while relaxing on the sand.
Tips: Definitely rent a moped in this town as the beach is at least a 5-minute drive from the main hotel areas. You'll save a ton on tuktuk rides and be able to come and go as you please.

Location: Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, Thailand
Accommodation: The Viking Nature Resort 
Things started to turn around when we left Phuket Province and made our way to Krabi, which includes Koh Phi Phi. We took the opportunity to really save budget by staying in an air-conditioning-less hut at the Viking Nature Resort. For $30 including breakfast this was the cheapest place to be. It was barely bigger than the bed, with a light and a porch with hammock. We even shared our bathroom, which was in another hut a few meters away. By our standards, this was roughing it, but for three days it was charming and comfortable. A powerful fan kept us cool and a mosquito net kept us protected. The common spaces of the hotel were great and very social, the beach was private and lovely, and the wifi was good, though not super strong in the huts.
Food: We ate many of our meals right at the hotel, which is a rarity for us. Because it's removed from the main tourist strip, it requires a boat ride or a trek across the island. Luckily the food was quite good, though the service was slow and careless; but the staff were sweet. Each night at 7:30pm they offer a free tasting of some menu items in the lobby, in an effort to bring people around. I thought this was a nice touch and a great way to check out a dish without committing to it.

Location: Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand
Accommodation: Sunrise Tropical Resort 
We made our way back to mainland with a stop at Railay Beach. The peninsula has two sides, connected by pathways cutting across. We chose to stay on the cheaper side, which doesn't have swimmable waterfront. Because the area is so small, we opted to save cash and walk to the good beach when we wanted it. 
Food: We had some tasty meals at cheap and cheerful locals. Mama's offered some comforting spaghetti Bolognese when I was feeling tired of curry. Cocktails and beer were cheap in most places. 

Location: Koh Samui, Surat Thani, Thailand
Accommodation: Baan Hin Sai Resort 
This hotel was quite lovely, with great pools, and good service. It was located away from the main tourist area, which was within 5 minutes on our rented moped. We always prefer to stay away from the hubbub and can often save money this way, too. The included breakfast was good but the wifi was spotty, not working at all in the rooms. 
Food: We had one memorable meal at a place called The Chef in Chaweng Beach. It was quiet and the food was really great and well-priced. A lunch at The Library (known for its blood-red swimming pool) was good, but overpriced. We met friends who were staying at the Akaryn Resort and joined them for lunch one day, which was truly terrific, but out of our price range. They generously took care of the bill, which was a nice treat on this trip.
Tips: This island really lends itself to renting a scooter. There's a lot to see and entire days can be spent cruising around. It's also larger than other areas we visited, so was nice to be able to get around without the need for taxis or tuktuks.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traveling in this day and age is something of a miracle. We often wonder how people did it twenty (even ten!) years ago. The once-valuable Travel Agent has been replaced by our own fruitful internet searches, booking everything from flights to rooms to breakfast with just a few clicks. All hotels have websites, even the most budget-consicious or remote. It's more and more rare, to see a 40-something backpacker carrying a relic of the past: a well-worn and dog-eared Lonely Planet book. Now we clack around on WikiTravel, noting departure taxes and visa information without the need to schlep weighty tomes. And we can fire off a quick hello text through our wifi-enabled iPhones instead of putting pen to postcard, the instant antidote to a pang of homesickness. 

Yesterday a friend checked-in, asking a string of thoughtful questions. One in particular had me thinking. She asked about our daily routine, whether or not we've built-in any alone time, and how we've adapted to sharing this experience. Each day is different, I said, with very little alone time. In many ways we're spending each day in perfect unison, every moment shared entirely. We don't need to say much when a tiny Cambodian toddler grins at us from a swinging hammock, we simply take it in. The furthest we get from each other is the couple hundred meters between our rented bicycles, the one without gears lagging back. I can calculate our distance by the lapse in our Hello!'s with passing strangers. And so there's almost nothing to talk about. We lack common domestic interactions like, "How was your day?" When we put our heads down at night, pillow talk has all but vanished.  

I hadn't thought of it, exactly, but suddenly I wondered what it meant. Were we losing track of a daily exercise we once enjoyed? Were we forgetting to ask certain questions, taking our shared experience for granted? But I realize I've come to look for Jeff's unique experience in the ultra-specific. "How is that beer?" "Are those noodles cooked well?" "Does your butt hurt from that bike seat?" Because it's important to know how this trip feels to him, how these moments affect him. The most mundane and the others, too. 

Riding bikes in Cambodia. 

LOCATION: Siem Reap, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
DATE AND TIME: Thursday, May 23, 2013 10:59AM Cambodian Standard Time/Wednesday, May 22, 2013 11:59PM EST